Irish business executive who climbed the corporate ladder of Unilever (the UK arm of the Anglo-Dutch foods and detergents business) to become one of its youngest-ever chairs and chief executive in 1996. He had joined Unilever Ireland in 1967, and reached board level at Unilever plc and Unilever NV in 1987. He remained with the company until he became chair of Reuters, a global media and information company, from 2004.
Fitzgerald was born in County Sligo, Republic of Ireland, and educated at St Munchins College, Limerick, Ireland. He graduated from University College, Dublin, with a degree in commerce and immediately joined Unilever's Irish animal feeds subsidiary (Paul & Vincent) as an accountant in 1967. Transferring to Unilever's head office in London, England, in 1972, he became personal assistant to the financial director two years later. Posted to North America in the late 1970s, Fitzgerald was then CEO of the foods business in South Africa from 1981 until returning to London as group treasurer in 1985.
He joined the boards of Unilever plc and Unilever NV in 1987 and was responsible respectively for the finance, foods, and detergents divisions (the last of which was responsible in 1994 for the launch of Persil Power, a failure as a product which had to be withdrawn at a cost of millions of pounds). From 1996, as chair and chief executive, Fitzgerald presided over a fundamental restructuring of Unilever, defining new product areas where the company was already, or potentially, a market leader, streamlining the strategic management, and disposing of non-core businesses. In 2000 Unilever bought ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's for $326 million and Bestfoods (US manufacturer of branded foods, including Knorr soups) for $21.3 billion.
Fitzgerald has served as president of the Advertising Association (2002–05), and chair of the Conference Board (2003–05), the CBI Europe Committee, and the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (2004–05). He has been a non-executive director of Merck (2000–03), Ericsson (2000–02), the Bank of Ireland (1990–99) and the Prudential Corporation (1992–99). In 2006 he was appointed chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, and also chairs the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust (UK), the Investment Climate Facility (ICF) for Africa, and the International Business Council. He is a member of the Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum and also a Trustee of the Leverhulme Trust.
Fitzgerald, Niall William Arthur